Aperture Cinema in downtown Winston-Salem and the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy are navigating in a changing environment as movie theaters — big and small — across the country struggle amid the pandemic.
In mid-March 2020, Aperture closed because of the novel coronavirus and has offered a virtual cinema since late-March. The theater is only open for private rentals that must be booked in advance.
Lawren Desai, executive director and curator for Aperture Cinema, said the theater’s ticket and concession revenue in 2020 was down more than $340,000 compared with 2019 and down $390,000 from 2018.
She added that the 2019 revenue was significantly impacted by the Business 40 closure.
“Virtual cinema sales are only 3% to 5% of what we would typically do in-theater ticket sales,” Desai said.
The theater temporarily laid off most of its staff at the end of March 2020 but was able to bring them back for eight weeks because of Paycheck Protection Program money. Aperture has been operating with a staff of two since its PPP money was depleted in mid-June 2020.
“At present, it is myself and our theater manager, whose position is being supported thanks in part to a grant we received from the Winston-Salem Foundation,” Desai said.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Earle Theatre was closed for movies in mid-March. Surry Arts Council reopened Earle Theatre in late October 2020.
“We reopened as soon as we were allowed to, within state government (guidelines),” Jones said.
Before COVID-19, the Earle was showing movies six days a week. Now, it's just three days a week.
Surry Arts Council also operates the Andy Griffith Museum, the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Blackmon Amphitheatre. The organization’s employees work in all its venues. Pre-COVID, it had nine full-time and eight part-time employees.
“We have cut hours and benefits across the board, and we have also cut salaries in some cases,” Jones said. “We have only one person in the Earle at a time.”
She said volunteers are currently assisting with the sanitizing in Earle Theatre.
In 2020, Surry Arts Council lost more than $800,000 in overall revenue for all its venues from March through December compared with the previous year.
“Our overall budget is $1.5 million, so our revenue has been just devastating,” Jones said.
Aperture Cinema states on its website that virtual cinema is a way to support it and the independent film industry while theaters are closed across the country.
“We release about three to four new films a week,” Desai said. “I think we’ve done now over 200 films.”
Although from a revenue standpoint, the virtual cinema does not bring in the amount of revenue Aperture was getting in ticket sales in the theater before the pandemic, Desai said that it’s still a way for the theater to offer films.
She suggested that people check out the theater’s virtual cinema, especially right now when films are up for Oscar consideration.
She said a lot of those films have come through Aperture’s virtual cinema and people tend to pay attention to them this time of year.
“It’s generally $12 or less for a virtual ticket, and it’s for your whole house,” Desai. “If you are a family, you can save a little money.”
In late October, Aperture started offering its private rentals for groups.
“Right now, we’re limiting it to 10 people and suggesting that it be family or your pod, just to be safe,” Desai said.
People can bring a film from their own library, watch an Aperture virtual cinema film or a new theatrical release.
“It’s a chance to see some new films in a theater in a safe way and have some fun,” Desai said.
Her hope is that once things get safer, they will be able to possibly expand the number of people allowed in groups.
The price for private rentals ranges from $250 to $300.
“To make it a little bit more accessible to everybody, because not everybody can pay that, we have a raffle that we do,” Desai said. “For $12, you can buy a raffle ticket and whenever we sell 25 tickets, we draw a winner. ... We’ve done three of those so far.”
She said some people have purchased the private rentals for special events such as birthdays and double dates.
She expressed her appreciation for the community support the theater received in 2020, saying that it was a hard year for fundraisers given that so many social services organizations such as food banks needed supported.
Most recently, Aperture received a $25,000 “NC CARES for Arts” award from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County. The money is part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Desai expects challenges for Aperture to continue this year and sees 2021 as probably a “rebuilding year.”
“I think we will look to do more outdoor stuff,” Desai said. “We did several events in the fall, and I think we’re continue to offer that in 2021 because we need to. It’s going to be a while, I think, until we get back to the level of audience that we had before.”
Built in 1938 through the partnership of Earl Q. Benbow and Percy A. Boone, Earle Theatre was donated to Surry Arts Council in 1990 by Carmike Cinemas, after sitting unused for several years.
“At that point, downtown single-screen theaters were being quickly replaced by multiplexes,” said Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council.
Earle Theatre has a rich past and is somewhat of a tourist destination. It was one of the sites for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
The theater reopened in the 1990s as a $1-movie theater, moved to $3 and is now up to $7 admission.
“Right now, the exciting thing that’s happened to us is being able to show first runs (again),” Jones said.
She said the first-run films are available because COVID has closed many of the multiplex theaters in the region.
In addition to movies, Earle Theatre has other offerings by the Surry Arts Council — Old-Time Music Heritage Hall, the live broadcast Merry-Go-Round, and free TAPS Youth Classes that include old-time dance, fiddle and guitar lessons.
2020 additions to the venue included accessible restrooms and old-time music exhibits.
The theater also rents space for birthday parties and other small events.
Certain seats downstairs and in the balcony of Earle Theatre are blocked off to create social distancing and masks are required.
“Everything single thing we do, we are in compliance with the guidelines,” Jones said.
She said that the biggest challenge faced by Earle Theatre was having been closed for so long and still have expenses for movie equipment and the facility without any income coming in.
The new guidelines that allow movie theaters to reopen has been extremely helpful for the Surry Arts Council, Jones said, but the guidelines did not allow entertainment venues such as concerts that have previously been offered in Earle Theatre. Masks are required.
“We canceled concerts after March (2020) and now we have canceled concerts through January,” Jones said. “We just keep canceling a month or two at a time, hoping that maybe the vaccine will control the COVID-19 cases and permit reopening.”
She is hopeful that they will be able to slowly open some events, but she said, “We also are realistic that probably the months of January and February will be our worst months so far between the weather and the expected surge in COVID-19 cases following the holidays.”
An elevated experience
Both Jones and Desai said there is still a lot of uncertainty about the film industry.
“We definitely have concerns that there are fewer options for movies right now,” Jones said.
She said the Surry Arts Council is excited about getting first-run movies at the Earle Theatre and plans to add more family classics into the mix, which were popular during the holidays.
Desai said that a lot of studios have had to change the way they release films, referring to how some films are being or will be released straight to streaming services.
She said it’s unknown as to how things will look when movie theaters get back to pre-pandemic times, but she is optimistic that they will survive.
“The bottom line is you can’t replace cinema with your home theater, no matter how big it is, because the magic of the cinema is being with other people and being in a space that’s devoted to that idea,” Desai said. “It’s an elevated experience when you’re watching it (a movie) with somebody else and you’re laughing. It’s just different. I think it would be a sad world without movie theaters.”